A Play with Songs (1984)
by Ron Hannah

Duration: about 90 minutes

    This represents my second collaboration with Rowland Holt-Wilson, who did the libretto

Arias for Download

for the earlier opera,
Mademoiselle Fifi. Sadly, he died in 2002.

    The story concerns Hypatia, a neo-platonist scholar who died in Alexandria in the year 415 AD. Little is known of her except that she was brilliant and highly respected as a mathematician and philosopher, and that she was murdered most grotesquely by a mob, for reasons unknown. Gibbon gives her a paragraph or two in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". Read it only if you have a strong stomach.

    Rowland's spin on the story is that Cyril, archbishop of Alexandria, and his friend the Abbot Serapion, are responsible, having seen in Hypatia a threat to the power of the growing Christian church. She was a double threat in fact, being a free-thinking woman who accepted no suitors, spoke her mind, and demanded integrity of all, especially her friend Orestes, the Roman Prefect of Egypt. Roman power was coming up against that of the church in those days, and Orestes is caught in the middle. He must contain the archbishop while maintaining civil order (Aria: "I Set Him to It"). Cyril is painted as a cynical character to whom power is all important, and who recruits a fanatical follower, a browbeaten monk named Ammonius (Aria: "Yes, A Mental Weakling!"), to take the blame for an attempt on the Prefect's life. Cyril wants to control Orestes and destroy Hypatia's influence, but is unwilling to have her killed outright (Aria: "Could I Be Someday Victim?"). He wishes to show the world that he is compassionate future saint material. News of her death at the hands of an hysterical mob, who know that Hypatia is hated by the archbishop, is as much a shock to him as to the audience (Aria: "Unseemly, Unexpected Truth"). He is distraught that now his "sainthood" will forever be tainted, as indeed it is. If you are a devotee of St. Cyril, you will not like this story.

    Hypatia must be a strong actress and a powerful mezzo-soprano, a perfect role for Andrea Mellis, Rowland's partner*, for whom it was written. Andrea, in fact, has performed Hypatia's four arias in recital, and if any enterprising sopranos out there would like to do the same, they may be downloaded above (in additions to making good recital pieces, they might also serve as audition and competition works as well).

     The musical style is basically tonal with dissonant elements, and in this present version the score has only piano accompaniment. In keeping with the mocking tone of the story, there are musical segments suggestive of chant (monks' songs and ceremonial music), lieder (Hypatia's arias), even ragtime (one of the monks' songs is highly eclectic, combining all these elements within the same song!) The full play has not yet been performed. To learn more and obtain further scores, and the play itself, please send me an email (below). And if any singers actually do perform these pieces, in recital or for audition, please let me know so I can keep my performances page up-to-date. Nobody ever does, but I keep asking!

* Rowland and Andrea had been good friends to me over the years, Andrea having commissioned me to write various things which she then performed (what more could a composer ask?) In 2013 she and I were married.